Market Finds: Is The Subaru 360 The Japanese Microcar You’ve Always Needed?

Is The Subaru 360 The Japanese Microcar You’ve Always Needed?

By Andrew Golseth
May 4, 2016

Photography courtesy of The Finest

Every automobile manufacturer had to start somewhere, but you may be surprised to hear that Subaru—a brand that continues to break sales records—had adorably humble beginnings. Actually, it had an awfully tough time finding foot here in the United States. Long before consecutive World Rally Championship titles, Subaru began as a spinoff of an old aircraft manufacturing company turned to scooter production after World War II. Much like Honda—though, admittedly on an even smaller scale—Subaru aimed to take on the automobile market.

Founded in 1915, The Aircraft Research Laboratory started life as an aircraft manufacturer and parts company. By 1932, the company became the Nakajima Aircraft Company, supplying aircraft and aviation equipment in support of World War II. After the war, the company was renamed the Fuji Sangyo Company and its resources were retooled for small ground transport equipment, primarily scooters.

In order to prevent major corporations from having political influence, Japan enacted the Corporate Credit Rearrangement Act—a bill that required major conglomerates to dismember into smaller independent companies. One slice of the Fuji Sangyo Company pie became Fuji Heavy Industries—a multinational firm that birthed Subaru. Subaru’s first automobile was powered by a Peugeot 1.5-liter and called the P1, or Subaru 1500. Due to supply issues, only a handful were made, but Subaru soon followed up with its first real mass-produced chariot: the Subaru 360.

Emulating the offspring of a Citröen DS and Fiat 500, its looks aren’t exactly something we’d call “beautiful,” but it does look as if it just puttered its way out of a Dr. Seuss book. The ladybug features some quirky knickknacks, namely: suicide doors, a fiberglass roof, Frenched headlamps, and awesome (in almost expected Japanese fashion, given the era) fender mounted side view mirrors.

This four-speed dogleg manual 1968 Subaru 360 is powered by a 356 cc two-stroke two-cylinder with the “Subarumatic” lubrication system—a reservoir that automatically mixes oil and gasoline, quite advanced when it was introduced in 1964. Zero to 60…isn’t really possible without a tailwind, but the little Kei car can reach 50 mph in under 4…0 seconds—at least you can brag about it’s estimated 66 mpg!

Weighing in around 900 pounds, measuring under 10 feet long, and priced around $1,300, the 360 was lighter, smaller, and nearly $300 cheaper than the VW Beetle. Over its 12-year production run, more than 390,000 were produced, most of which were sold in Japan. A go-getter by the name of Malcolm Bricklin, a man you can thank for bringing America the Yugo and the hilariously awful SV-1, made quite an earning importing Japanese scooters and projected to do the same with the Subaru 360. Because of the car’s size and engine displacement, it was exempt from U.S. safety and emission requirements, making it an easy grey market car to import.

Bricklin imported 10,000 units and began advertising the 360s as “cheap and ugly”—perhaps that strategy would have saved Scion? Although the car was also exempt from several U.S. crash regulations, Consumer Reports declared it was “not acceptable” and “the most unsafe car in America”—so sales didn’t take off like Bricklin anticipated. Even with the low price tag, many 360 sat on dealer lots for years. (Which is actually where this example spent the last decade.) After a complete restoration to factory specs, carried out by a Connecticut Subaru dealer, the car sat inside said dealer’s showroom for charming, authentic advertising.

Offered for sale through The Finest’s upcoming Elegance at the Hershey on Saturday, June 11, this old Kei car is a symbol of early Japanese motoring and presents in very good condition inside and out. Numbers matching in its original color combination and complete with service books, why buy an EV for a daily when you could be so stylish in this Japanese nostalgic compact?

– One of 10,000 imported to America
– Restored by Subaru dealership

~30 horsepower two-stroke “straight-twin” 356 cc two-cylinder engine, four-speed dogleg manual transmission, independent front and swing-axle rear suspension, four-wheel drum brakes. Wheelbase: 70.9 inches.

Vehicle information
Chassis no.: K111L-3787

Auction house: The Finest
Estimate: (no reserve)
Price realized: Auction on June 11

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8 years ago

In Japan, we call VW Bug ‘Kabutomushi’ (rhino beetle), and we call Subaru 360 ‘Tentoumushi’ (ladybug). No, it’s not a lie, that we used to open the door to use it as air brakes on downhill. It is also true that it’s incredibly flimsy. I love this car so much because of the way it was conceived. It was built under a very strict dimension regulation set by Japanese government then. It was designed without “design”, so to speak. A block of clay was embedded with metal wire that forms the parameter of the maximum dimension allowed by regulation, and Shinroku Momose would carve the clay till it touches the wires, and so the shape was born very intuitively from artisan’s eyes. We don’t design through imagination whole lot any more.

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